The magnitude of the military crisis in the Wanni has mostly been covered from the public gaze. In fact one might be completely denounced for even talking about a crisis there. The security forces are backed and trained by the sole superpower and the worlds fourth largest, battle tested army. Hence they are supposed to be superior in fire power and military sophistication. Yet, it is relevant, when one examines the ground realities, to speak about the armys creeping crisis in the Wanni.
This would be quite evident upon closer scrutiny of the situation in Kilinochchi and Paranthan.
The army headquarters in Colombo says everything is under control and that the LTTE got a big beating in the attack on this base complex on Feb.1. It was also stated that more than 350 Tigers were killed in the abortive attack.
But statements issued by the security forces headquarters in Jaffna which is directly involved with the operations and counter-operations in Kilinochchi and Paranthan and the accounts of civilians who have been to the area tell a different story.
On Feb. 6 the Jaffna security forces headquarters said in a communique that more than 350 Tigers were killed in the attack on Paranthan-Kilinochchi-Elephant Pass base complex. It said one officer and 52 soldiers were killed and one officer and 52 soldiers were missing in the fighting.
The security forces headquarters in Jaffna put out another statement on Feb. 10 about the situation in Kilinochchi-Paranthan-Elephant Pass. It was addressed to the people of Jaffna in Tamil and was issued by Major. C.P.J Fernando on behalf of the Jaffna security forces commander. It says:
The Liberation Tigers attacked Kilinochchi, Paranthan and Elephant Pass early in the morning on Feb.1, 1998. We successfully repulsed the attack. More than a hundred Tigers were killed in this. Yet, only the troops in the forward defences of Kilinochchi tactically withdrew 1.5 kilometres. We inform you that the LTTE could not capture Kilinochchi town or areas in Paranthan or Elephant Pass.
The discrepancies here are too obvious. More than 100 Tigers killed and 106 soldiers dead and missing in the fighting according to the second communique. The toll is on par.
And then, withdrawing 1.5 kilometres from the armys southern defences in Kilinochchi means that more than half the town has been vacated.
The Tigers, according to many civilians who came from the Wanni this week, had allowed large crowds of former residents to visit the Kilinochchi town on Monday. Civilians had been permitted to go up to the Kilinochchi hospital which is in the northern part of the town.
A 52-year-old man named Ganeshalingam was wounded by a stray bullet from army positions north west of Kilinochchi when he was inspecting his house in Ganeshapuram on Monday.
This settlement is about two kilometres to the west of the town. The army, according to people who have been to Kilinochchi, appears to be holding onto an area to the north west of the town, towards the Ruththirapuram area and the Karadippokku Junction where the MOD might take journalists from Colombo today.
The army captured Kilinochchi in late 1996, by advancing south west and then east and south east towards the town. The string of camps and FDLs in Kilinochchi are also spread in this direction. The so-called tactical withdrawal by the army on Feb.1 was along this path. The fact is that the army has been unable to regain the lost territory until yesterday.
The Paranthan FDLs have also shrunk in size, according to some reports.
When one pieces together the information that is available about the attack on the Kilinochchi-Paranthan base, it clearly emerges that the LTTE has advanced its method of overrunning well fortified and conventionally defended camps.
Mullaitivu was an isolated camp and was precariously supplied by sea.
In contrast, Kilinochchi-Paranthan was an integral part of the armys largest military base complex. Hence, there could be absolutely no logistical reason, as in the case of Mankulam or of Mullaitivu, for the inability of the army to hold on to its positions in the face of an LTTE attack. Both camps fell mainly because of logistical difficulties which were inevitable due to their isolation which prevented reinforcements and supplies.
But in this case, the Tigers have overrun and are holding on to part of the armys largest base complex in the island for more than two weeks. The question of logistical difficulties does not arise here at all. Hence, it is evident that something else is amiss.
It should be plain to anyone that the strategic dimensions of the Eelam War are undergoing a significant change.
As I suggested earlier in these columns, the LTTE wants to draw the army further into the Wanni and make it spread its manpower resources thin over captured ground while denying it the control of the key points on A9.
If we look at the places which the LTTE is tenaciously holding onto, it will be evident the idea is to prevent the army from securing a conventional logistical advantage for the smooth progress of Op. Jaya Sikurui. The railway line along the A9 are not enough to help the army resolve the problem because it cannot get beyond Omanthai. The army has commissioned the railway department to lay tracks from Vavuniya to Omanthai. The army has also asked the department to build a railway station in Omanthai. The work has already begun. (The railway track to Jaffna had been dismantled since Eelam War II began in 1990. But it remained partly intact between Vavuniya and Thandikkulam. The army and the PLOTE in the Thandikkulam area completely dismantled and removed these railway tracks following a counter attack by the LTTE last year.)
Even the Indian army which had none of these logistical problems faced a tough time in the Wanni.
With decades of experience in containing the insurgency in its northeastern states, it took a slow but steady approach to fighting the LTTE in the Wanni. The Indian armys Wanni operation was ambitiously codenamed Checkmate. Its field headquarters was established deep in the Mullaitivu jungles in Niththihaikkulam.
Operation Checkmate dragged on for ten months although the Indian army took a no-holds-barred approach.
Yet, at the end of the day, a special contingent of the Gurkhas, the Indian armys most feared elite commando unit was mauled and massacred by the LTTE not far from the Niththihaikulam IPKF field HQ.
The LTTE that is fighting Jaya Sikurui has combined its unprecedented conventional strength with the jungle warfare experience which it gathered during Op. Checkmate.
Despite the harsh realities of the current ground situation in the Wanni, the impression that the army is marching along on the A9 towards its goal, has been successfully sunk in. Six hundred Tigers have been trapped in Mankulam said a state run daily newspaper.
Conventional type progress is well nigh impossible now in the forward areas of Operation Jaya Sikurui. Holding operations and gradual spreading ahead through small scale operations are the norm now.
Having compelled the army to spread itself thus, the LTTE seems set to create pressure in the north by going for large targets such as Kilinochchi. The logistical problems in the far north can be serious as everything here depends on sea and air supplies.
The vague shape of the things to come was discernible on Thursday night when the LTTE attacked army positions in Gurunagar in Jaffna town and burnt down the bunker at Chavakkalai junction. The Tigers were in the area until the early hours of the morning before withdrawing by sea. This is a repeat of what they did on the night of Jan. 28.
Kilinochchi appears to be just the beginning.
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